Real Madrid ride their luck to claim first-leg win over Ajax
Goals by Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio earned Madrid a narrow last-16 victory over Ajax, who gave the holders a tough night in Amsterdam.
Ajax 1-2 Real Madrid: match report
Real Madrid have one foot in the Champions League quarter-final after a couple of second half goals by Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio with a Hakim Ziyech goal sandwiched in between on a night of flair in Amsterdam.
At times, it was a blur of red and white in the opening half as the side, who many suggested were in crisis, came out swinging against a side who many suspected were finally hitting their stride. Real Madrid regressed to the side they were for large spell in the first half of the season and Ajax were playing a brand of football that resembled something from a Johan Cruyff-designed utopia.
Real Madrid were never allowed to settle with Ajax's young guns buzzing around the field and with the fans bouncing in the stands. They whistled when the visitors had it for longer than a couple of second and roared their side on when they won it back and drove forward, which they were doing at will.
Ziyech had an effort early before Casemiro was forced to slide in and save what would have been a clear shot at goal after seven minutes. The ball made it's way to Bale up the other end within moments, such was the speed of the game, and he fired into Onana's hands.
Vinicius drove in from the left-hand side in what was the first sighting of the Brazilian. It wouldn't be the last of him though as he drove a shot at goal stinging the palms of the Ajax shot-stopper.
The dynamic of the game seemed to shift at that point as Vinicius' warning shot woke the home side up to the fact that they might actually concede. Prior to that, they were just thinking of attacking. But it wouldn't be long before their young brains discarded the memory of Vinicius' threat and went on the front foot again.
Tadic hit the post with a strike from just inside the penalty area as Sergio Ramos applied pressure. He was falling as he hit it but he had Courtois beaten. He couldn't steer it inside the post though.
There was more direct link up play when Tadic nearly put one on Van der Beek's foot from point blank range. Thibaut Courtois was forced in to a good save by Ziyech with his feet on 36 minutes. The assault was in full flow.
Shortly after that, we saw the first goal ruled out in the VAR era of the Champions League. A corner came in and De Ligt rose highest to head down into Courtois' hands but he fumbled it. Tagliafico was on hand to head home but after a consult with the lads in the VOR (video operation room), VAR said Tadic was offside as he impeded Courtois. The scoreboard was re-adjusted and Ajax started again to batter down the reigning champions' defence.
Real Madrid were slightly more assured in the second half with some gentle adjustments to their system. They had more relief when playing out from the back and didn't look as suspect as they had. But it wasn't plain sailing either.
Ziyech was booked for upturning Bale and he was soon replaced for Lucas Vazquez in what was not a convincing performance from the Welsh man. But not before Vinicius was sent down the left and he created the opener. He scurried forward and cut inside only to meet Benzema in the box before laying it off to the striker. Benzema's 19th of the season was a corker as he drove it into the top corner and beyond a stretching Onana.
Ajax were running out of steam at an alarming rate and while Real Madrid were too, they hadn't set the pace for most of the game and still had a gear or two to move into. But the home side stuck to their plan and had the equaliser after 75 minutes when Neres crossed low as Ziyech met it to stroke home.
Real Madrid had their away goal and might have settled for it but Marco Asensio was back after a lengthy lay-off. A player who was tipped to explode onto the scene for Real Madrid this season but has slowly been overtaken by Vinicius Lucas Vazquez. He had a point to prove and that was obvious given his five shots during his short cameo. Just one of them counted though and it was the last.
A cross to the back post was met by the young attacker and he gave Real Madrid the victory on a night when they, perhaps, didn't deserve it. But that is a tale often told about this Real Madrid side in Europe's elite competition. And they keep winning almost despite these baffling performances.
Sergio Ramos was booked late on for a challenge on Jasper Dolberg and he will miss the return leg and Benzema went off injured. But they have come through a tricky period of their fixture list without a loss and still very much in three competitions.
After the game, Ramos said the asmosphere was incredible and the club has "great fans, a great young team who play very good football" and they do. But Real Madrid will carry those two away goal back to the Bernabéu as a shield against this explosive and perfectly balanced Ajax side.
Ajax vs Real Madrid live online: match updates
Ajax vs Real Madrid live online: preview
It's the reigning Champions League winners versus an upstart Ajax on Wednesday night at the Johan Cruyff ArenA in Amsterdam. The Dutch side started their season with a bang but have fallen fast since the winter break. Real Madrid are on a similar journey but in the other direction as they have turned things around since returning from the Club World Cup in December.
Ajax manager, Erik Ten Hag, says his plan to beat Madrid is to copy Pep Guardiola's philosophy. They are coming off a defeat to Herceles in the league and currently sit six points behind PSV Eindhoven in the league but Frenkie de Jong is back and played 70 minutes in that game at the weekend but his place in the team is still questionable. The manager says, "This opponent is a challenge. We're looking forward to it, we're confident we can take them on. We're physically fit and with the right team spirit we can go a long way. [Frenkie de Jong] is fit – he will be even more motivated as a future Barcelona player to play against Real Madrid." They will most certainly need him if they are to compete with the reigning winners of the competition. They are without Hassan Bandé and Nicólas Tagliafico along with Lisandro Magallán.
Real Madrid are missing Isco, who suffered a back injury recently, and Marcos Llorente, who re-injured his abductor and still has another couple of weeks on the sideline before he can be considered again. Jesus Vallejo is also a doubt and Raphael Varane is suffering from the flu. He has recovered significantly overnight but is still a doubt. The big questions for Santiago Solari is whether he starts Vinicius or not. Gareth Bale is coming back into contention and the Brazilian has played a lot in recent weeks. The club are keen to protect him and they might see this as a chance to rest him. BRazil manager Tite is sending scouts to the Bernabéu on Sunday against Girona but if the teenager plays in Amsterdam, it's unlikely he plays again on Sunday given his recent workload. Four Ajax fans were arrested outside Real Madrid's hotel on Tuesday night as they set off fireworks in an effort to disturb the players' sleeping pattern. Let's see if it worked or if it just made them more eager to win.